US Open, Pinehurst 1999
The picture of Payne Stewart celebrating holing the putt that won him the 1999 US Open is one that inspires and horrifies in equal measure.
At first glance, the sheer joy written large on his face, and the typically over-the-top response from a man who wore his heart and his emotions on the sleeve – and his plus fours – was what stood Stewart apart from his fellow players.
But afforded the benefit of hindsight, as we are, the image is both chilling to the casual observer and heart-rending to friends and family, knowing that just over three months later Stewart would be dead.
Rarely has the knife-edge of life and death been captured more clearly than it is in this picture. Here is a man who, at 42, was just coming into his golf prime, having just captured one of the game’s greatest prizes. And to know that it was to be his last victory adds a poignancy that even the hardest of hearts cannot fail to be moved by.
Almost 25 years on, and the horrific circumstances surrounding Stewart’s death serve as reminder as to how we give air travel no more thought these days than we would to cross the road. OK, we hate the delays and the endless security checks, but the flying element is the bit we perhaps take for granted.
Stewart died along with five other people when the Learjet he was flying in from his home in Florida to Dallas suffered a catastrophic loss of cabin pressure, which knocked everyone unconscious inside the plane within a matter of minutes. What was even more shocking for those relatives watching events unfold on the news was that the plane was on auto-pilot and carried on flying for a further three hours before it ran out of fuel and crashed to the ground in South Dakota.
REMEMBERING PAYNE STEWART
Regardless of the manner or timing of his death, Stewart would have been remembered fondly, and for a long time, by everyone attached to the sport. Not only did he win three majors and other 21 other tour titles, but he turned the boring, conservative game that 1980s professional golf had become into something more resembling entertainment. Always a fierce competitor, he also knew how to have fun, on and off the golf course, and held the game in its true perspective.
How his playing career would have panned out if he had lived will always remain an unanswered question, but according to those in the know, he was America’s likely choice as Ryder Cup captain at Celtic Manor for 2010.
Shortly before his death, Stewart said: “I would love to be Ryder Cup captain. I would be a very emotional captain. A very hands-on captain. I wouldn’t hesitate to sit somebody down if he wasn’t performing, even if he was the No.1 player in the world.”
While we’ll never know if he would have left Tiger Woods out of the Saturday four-balls in Wales, you can bet that he would have had a big say in the match outfits, with a check plus-four number being a strong favourite for the Sunday singles.
MONTY WILL NEVER FORGET
A fervent American patriot, Stewart was regarded by some as being one of the main instigators of the nationalistic element that was a feature of Ryder Cups in the 90s, yet those that knew him knew that to be farthest from the truth. A month before his death he had played in the infamous ‘Bearpit’ at Brookline and was appalled by the abuse that Colin Montgomerie received. The American waded into the crowd to have people ejected and, sickened by what he had seen over the course of 18 holes, picked Monty’s ball up on the final green and said: “That will do us.”
For a long time Montgomerie kept a photo from that day in his business folder. He wrote in his autobiography: “Every time I pull it out, I think back to the moment Payne gave me the match and how fragile life can be.”
Today the PGA Tour honours Stewart every year with the presentation of The Payne Stewart Award which is given to a player whose ‘values align with the character, charity and sportsmanship that Stewart showed’, with recent winners including Justin Rose, Bernhard Langer and Zach Johnson.